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I had passed that way many times before. The building was just off Park Street, a beautiful, colonial edifice of at least five floors. The British might have left murder and mayhem behind them as their plans for Partition went into bloody effect, but they also left Calcutta with some spectacular buildings. And hers was one of them.
I had never seen her before, nor heard of her. They say she kept a low profile as most people would in her condition. It wasn’t until my friend Milli invited me home after school to hear Elvis Presley’s latest, that I became aware she even existed.
From the moment I entered the building there was whispering. With its five spacious, high-ceiling floors, it housed five families, one on each. Some were likely related as was the case with many Bengali apartment buildings where extended families lived together, yet separately. Milli didn’t seem to notice but I, a sensitive child, was acutely aware of the stares and chitter chatter that even the servants were party to.
I assumed the gossip had to do with my mother who people often talked about. My mum, Alice, had been well-known and well-regarded in Calcutta since she moved there from England in 1940. She was an accomplished cellist and played often at the opulent New Empire Theater, both solo and with the symphony. She also played on the radio once a week and was a familiar name because of it. Her story was well-known: that she’d been a child prodigy, mastering the cello by the age of six and performing it, and ballet, for the British king and queen on a regular basis. It was also known that she’d been offered a contract by MGM to move to Hollywood to become a child (silent movie) star, but her Uncle Arthur said no member of their family would partake in such rubbish, and ripped up her contract. And it was known that she’d attended the Royal Academy of Music as their youngest student and had a promising music career in Europe ahead of her until she married an Indian man and World War II struck almost simultaneously, so they decided to move to India until its conclusion.
So I figured that’s why they were whispering, telling each other, “That’s Alice Chowdhry’s daughter!” But that wasn’t why at all. They were whispering because of the woman on the top floor.
It was during my third or fourth visit to Milli’s when I noticed that along with the whispers, the residents peered nervously upwards, towards the top floor.
“Milli, who lives up there?” I eventually asked.
Consumed with singing along to Love Me Tender, and studying her performance in the mirror, Milli ignored me. When I asked again she lowered the volume on her record player with a huff and answered with a sigh.
“Savita lives there. With her mum.”
“Oh,” I said. “Do you see them much?”
“They barely leave the apartment. Her mum’s old and can’t handle the stairs and Savita … well, she doesn’t like to show her face.”
“Because it’s burned.”
Jail House Rock had just started so when I asked how it was burned, when it was burned, how bad it was, all I got was a shrug and a hip gyration.
When I got home that night, my mum, dad and younger brother, Nikhil, were sitting down for dinner. My other brothers weren’t there, they were away at boarding school, which, being the bothers they were, I was grateful for. Mum’s favorite, Shepherd’s Pie, was on the table but it wasn’t my favorite so I slipped into the kitchen to see if the servants had any leftovers of their food as I often did when it was “English” night. Fortunately they had plenty of hot, spicy fish curry and pakoras and piled my plate full. When it came to food my Indian side pushed through the strongest, with the exception of chocolate digestive biscuits, England’s greatest gift to humankind.
Once mum was over the fact that I wasn’t eating the “delicious, spectacular” Shepherd’s Pie, I just came right out with it.
“Do you know Savita, the burned woman in Milli’s building?”
Both mum and dad became uneasy, fidgety. Usually they were fast with answers, but not this time.
“Well? Do you?” I pressed on.
“Not exactly,” my dad, Sudip, said, focused on picking peas out of his pie, not his favourite food either.
“Darling, did you finish the invitations for the Christmas party?” mum suddenly asked me, knowing full well that I had last week. Naturally, their refusal to discuss the matter only piqued my interest in it, exponentially.
The next day at school, I invited myself to Milli’s house, promising to actually participate in her lip syncing and choreographies this time. But I lied, as soon as we got there and she was changing out of her school uniform, I slipped away.
Checking no one was around, I quietly maneuvered up the regal, spiral staircase. Winded by the third floor, I recovered my breath before proceeding up the final two. The whole fifth floor was quiet as I tiptoed towards the balcony and spotted the silhouette of a woman in a sari, doing what looked like crochet. As I got closer it became clear that this was Savita. Though her sari veiled her face, I could still see the cooked, pink skin of her neck and it startled me.
“What are you doing?! Who are you?!”
I jumped with fright and turned towards the barking to discover an arched, ancient woman wobbling towards me at full speed. As I booked for the stairs I felt her cold, frail hand clasp my wrist. She looked at me, stared, just as the residents and servants had done downstairs.
Then something strange happened. Her expression switched slowly from fierce to melancholic, her blurry cataracts unblinking. She swallowed hard, reached out and touched my cheek gently, her eyes moistening. She uttered quietly, desperately, “Don’t let her see you … ever.”
As she released my wrist, I charged for the stairs and ran down them as fast as I could.
I couldn’t sleep that night nor the nights that followed, wondering who this troubled Savita was and what she had to do with me or my family. Again, I asked my parents, again they changed the subject.
When mum’s sister, Auntie Clara, came to visit a few weeks later I knew she’d be the one to tell me what she knew, if anything. Clara was a bitter woman with a mean streak who loved to speak badly about people whenever she had the chance. Mum always justified Auntie’s odd behaviors and bad manners by saying life hadn’t been fair to her, that she’d had more than her share of hits and dealt with them by being mean to others. This I knew well as I was one of her victims.
When I was five she locked me in a closet full of spiders after I dropped a saucepan that didn’t even break. When I was ten and all dressed up for my birthday party having doted on my appearance for hours, she told me I still looked like the backside of a bus.
I didn’t know what mum meant when she said Auntie had experienced “more than her fair share of hits,” all I knew was that I hated her. But at that moment I was willing to put my loathing aside as I knew, if it meant spilling gossip and misery, Auntie would be the best source of intel about my family’s connection to Savita.
And it turns out, Auntie was…
But of course, Auntie being Auntie, she wasn’t about to tell me what she knew, what I so desperately longed to know about Savita, the woman of the top floor, without a price. Auntie grinned villainously as she sprawled out on her wicker chair, looking as inelegant as a woman could in a sari. Her red, bushy hair and ever redder, freckly skin not favoring the hot pink, poker dot sari she wore as well as a baboon might if it chose to wrap its bulbous self in silky fabric.
“Why are you so interested in her, child?” Auntie asked in her superior, high-pitched English voice which was worse than any nail down any chalk board.
Truth be told, I didn’t have a ready answer to Auntie’s question. Why am I so interested? I pondered. It’s not due to boredom as my life on bustling Park Street in the center of cosmopolitan Calcutta was far from dull. I suppose it’s simply because it’s a secret. One that involves me, one that involves my family – a family brimming with mysteries that no one volunteered to explain. Extracting the history of my parents, and their parents, was akin to using a fork to fight off a Bengal tiger, though as the years went on and the stories behind the tight lips gradually emerged, I realized why.
“Because I think she has something to do with me?” I finally replied.
Auntie started to cackle, throwing her head back in as patronizing a way as she could muster, her yellow, cigarette-stained teeth vibrating with repulsive satisfaction.
“Of course you do, child. Don’t you always?”
I churned with hatred, longed to spit at her, but knew if I wanted answers, and didn’t want a spanking, or to be locked in a closet, I must control the urge. So I just stared at her, revealing nothing.
“Well in this case, you’re right, child. She does have something to do with you. Or, your parents more like.”
“Please tell me, Auntie! What?” Though my head told me to conceal my enthusiasm, as I neared closer to the truth, my curiosity got the better of me.
“Please tell me, Auntie. Tell me please!” she mocked, offensively. I held my tongue so tight it was sure to bleed. I thought there must be a God, or many as my Hindu half subscribes, who chose not to grant this woman children. Being her niece was vile enough.
“You barely speak to me but now that you want something, I get your time. You children are all the same. Selfish. Next you’re going to be demanding to know about your sister.”
What?! I thought, not hiding my shock as my jaw fell open and Auntie lapped up my blindsided response.
“I don’t have a sister!” I exclaimed, clenching and unclenching my little fists, barely able to handle the possibility of such a revelation.
“Oh YES you do,” she whispered, peering around to make sure no one was listening to her particular brand of child abuse.
“Then where is she?!” I demanded, no longer able to conceal a thing.
“She’s … in America.” she revealed, eyes illuminated, lapping up her tiny slice of power.
“With granny and Janine?” I prodded, as the only people I knew who lived in America were my Grandma Edith and her daughter, Janine, who was pursuing a career in show business. Or, more accurately, Grandma Edith was pursuing it for her whether Janine wanted one or not.
“Exactly. But didn’t you want to know about Savita?
“One thing at a time, plump child, or you might pop your round self with surprise. But first, go inside and have the servants make me a large cup of tea. No less than three quarters full.”
It was actually many cups of tea later and many unpleasant favors before Auntie led me towards the story of Savita, then eventually, of my sister, a disclosure that changed my life and my relationship with my mother, forever.
The first favor I did for Auntie was to spy on her boyfriend Graham, a renowned British engineer who helped design Calcutta’s famous Howrah Bridge that spans the Hooghly River. Auntie was clearly embarrassed, and redder than usual, as she revealed to me that Graham never let her sleep at his house, just visit between the hours of 7-9pm, then he’d send her on her way, returning to us out of breath, sweaty, and extra disgusting. I always assumed Graham’s lift must be broken so she’d have to walk up many flights of stairs at his home, hence her exhaustion. I’m glad I didn’t know the truth or she might have irreversibly scarred my young self more than she already did.
Auntie’s suggestion for the task was that I sneak out of the house and spy on Graham after 9pm. When I commented that that might be dangerous for a girl child to do at night, her compromise was that I leave early for school and spy on him in the morning hours instead.
Which I did and discovered that a pretty and doughy Indian lady with very red lipstick often exited his home around 7am. This news caused Auntie great distress as I discovered when I caught her weeping by the roses one afternoon. Though it seems she never said anything about my discovery as she continued to visit Graham during her appointed hours for months and years to come, returning just as sweaty as before.
The other favor I was forced to perform was accompanying Auntie to the New Market on Lindsay Street to haggle for her in Bengali with the vendors who didn’t speak English. This proved worse than my early morning spy work, as I discovered that Auntie was worse behaved in public than in private where she lapped up the shocked stares of the locals, which she translated as jealousy of her Englishness, but I assessed as disgust.
When, after all Auntie put me through, I did finally learn the truth about Savita, the woman of the top floor, I quickly came to regret my interest and it forced me to control my curiosities, even repress them, from that day on.
During a Sunday dinner, the English sort with roast beef, roast potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding, all of which my father and I could only consume with the aid of many green chilies, and just as the servants were preparing to bring out a fruit crumble with fresh cream, Auntie came straight out and said it.
“Your daughter has been pestering me about Savita. I think it’s far time you let her know who Savita is so the child will leave me alone.”
As my mixed-blood, olive skin turned pink and my parents’ eyes turned to me with a look I’d seen many times before as I pushed beyond the boundaries of appropriate, I shrunk into my chair.
“It’s just…” I squeaked, “When I go to Milli’s everyone whispers about me and looks towards her … on the top floor. I just want to know why. That’s all.”
My mother quickly changed the subject towards the uncooked-ness of the crumble, and again, I was left without answers. However, after dinner as everyone moved towards their separate rooms, my father took me aside and led me towards the veranda to tell me the story. The very sad story of the woman of the top floor.
My father explained in his usual calm manner that before he journeyed to England to study, he was engaged to be married. He was engaged to a woman, chosen by his parents, who he’d never met. The reason they’d had him engaged, just as many Indian parents had done with their sons, was so they wouldn’t meet and marry English ladies while there. Since many of these lads were well-to-do they were often the targets of lower class English families who saw them as golden geese, despite being Indian which so many Brits looked down on.
But my father didn’t do as he was told once he met my mother.
He had become acquainted with Auntie Clara and my mum through their mother, Edith. Edith was quite the woman for her time. A progressive divorcee with a knack for real estate, Edith frequented what were called internationalist meetings. These were events where intellectual Brits discussed world events, particularly colonization and the future of the British empire, which many felt should release their hold on foreign lands. It so happened that my father and a few of his Indian law school friends were invited to one of these events. And it was there that they met Edith who invited them all to the courthouse for the weekend.
By courthouse I don’t mean law court rather, the royal kind. The grandiose house where granny lived had once been Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge before being sold off. On the weekends Edith would throw grand parties there, inviting guests for the entire weekend. They’d amuse themselves by playing dress up, feasting on elaborate dinners and of course, hunting. My mother wasn’t at these first weekends that my father attended, she was touring Europe with an orchestra. However, Clara was there and took a strong liking to my dad.
A few days before my mother was scheduled to return home she learned of the Indian visitors who’d become a weekend fixture. She wasn’t impressed and told her mom to “get the Indians out” before she came home. But Edith would have no such thing.
When mum returned and entered the courthouse with a servant lugging her cello behind her, my dad was walking down the grand staircase with her favorite cocker spaniel in his arms. As her sister and mother stood back, awaiting her rage, Alice stared at my father and his handsome, kind face. As she told me later, when she looked at him that first time she didn’t see his colour, instead, she fell instantly in love. Hearing this was the first time I recall feeling sympathy for Auntie. Mummy had the talent she never had, and now she had the man.
But it turns out it wasn’t just Auntie who came to suffer from this unlikely attraction that a few years later, after much resistance from my father’s Indian family, became a marriage. Savita suffered also, though a whole lot more.
My father sat back in his rocking chair looking more fragile than I’d ever seen him as he revealed to me that Savita was the woman he was engaged to marry before he left for England. When my father met my mother and called off the wedding, under the rigid constraints of Indian tradition at the time, Savita was essentially ruined. She was considered a rejected woman who could never marry and though she’d received a decent education, it wasn’t accepted for her to work and pursue a career, so as a young woman of nineteen, she had little to live for. And she felt it.
So Savita set herself on fire.